Arguments based on rights seem irresistible today. Unlike arguments based on natural law, let alone those based on revealed religion, everyone seems to understand them without further explanation. So if someone wants to say abortion is bad he says it violates the right to life, and if he wants to oppose the current deconstruction of marriage, family, and sexuality, he’s likely to say it’s at odds with children’s right to a stable home with a mother and father.
The arguments make sense. Bad conduct normally trespasses on particular people’s interests that ought to be protected, so it violates their rights, and pointing to the violation is an effective way of dramatizing important aspects of what’s wrong with the conduct in question. People may still reject the argument, but at least they understand what’s being said.
There is, however, a strategic problem with using the arguments too much. Rights don’t say what’s good substantively. Instead, they focus on the ability of the person holding the right to exercise it or not as he chooses. So talking about rights is talking about choice, and treating them as the basic issue is treating choice that way.
That’s a problem, because today choice has become the supreme moral standard. That tendency ties into liberation as the goal of progressivism, giving people what they want as the basis of democratic politics, and maximum preference satisfaction as the justification for consumer capitalism. It’s also given us our regime of “gay marriage“ and limitless abortion.
Although everything in our public life seems to support it, putting choice first doesn’t make sense. As a right to act willfully, choice can be pleasing as a kind of playfulness, but it would be crazy to make that kind of arbitrary playfulness the thing that gives life and society their overall direction. What makes choice important is that there are choices worth having that exclude each other, and judgment is needed to put together the best combination of possibilities. So evaluation, and thus rankings and relationships among goods, is what makes choice a serious matter. It follows that it is not a primary good but something that’s good through the goodness of other things, and that means those other goods come first.
The problem becomes apparent when choices conflict. In that case choice can’t really be the highest standard, since it can’t tell us what to do, but the impulse that wants to make it so refuses to look at substantive goods. The result is that the highest standard becomes not choice itself but the principle of making choice the highest standard. In other words, the highest standard becomes the triumph of ideological liberalism, the outlook that claims to put choice first. We are free, but our freedom consists in the right to support and live by the official view of things.
Suppose, for example, that Bob and Bill want to get married under state law and ask Joan, a baker, to bake them a wedding cake. Joan doesn’t want to bake the cake—which is, after all, an expressive object—and thereby support and participate in the event, so she says “no.“ We thus have choices that conflict. Whose takes precedence? Joan might argue that she’s entirely replaceable, and the burden of going to a different baker is minimal, while forcing her to bake the cake means involuntary servitude, forced speech, and a violation of her right to opt out of actions that violate her conscience.
For those who buy into current public thought, it is nonetheless obvious that she loses. Bob and Bill are trying to put their life together on the footing they want, while Joan is trying to carry on her business in a way consistent with her social commitments. The former trumps the latter, in part because domesticity seems to touch people more closely and affect others less than commerce, so it is thought to deserve more autonomy. But making Bob and Bill go to a different baker seems to violate autonomy less than making Joan bake the cake. So the more important reason for Joan’s loss is that her social commitments are considered illegitimate and indeed evil.
Bob and Bill want their choice to be honored as much as anyone’s, and Joan refuses to do so. That means (it is thought) that she denies their human dignity, which is thought to depend on their ability to choose a form of life for themselves and have that choice honored equally with other choices. Joan, of course, is also choosing a form of life for herself, one that accepts and supports traditional and natural law understandings of marriage, the family, and sexual matters, but those understandings do not accept choice as the supreme good, and thus reject the basic principle of today’s public morality. That being the case, Joan’s choice is not considered morally valid. It makes her a “bigot“—a word that basically means she is excluded from the moral community—and the more she objects the more important it is to shove “gay marriage“ down her throat as an object lesson.
Choice as the highest principle thus turns against itself for lack of something substantive to define and motivate it. It becomes, in fact, tyrannical. In order to restore reason to discussions of moral, social, and political issues, we need to go beyond rights and choice as standards, and talk about what is worth choosing—in other words, about goods and their relationships and rankings. And since goods are ultimately arbitrary unless they’re based on how man and the world really are, we need to talk about human nature and natural law: what kind of world we’re part of, how we fit into it, what sort of beings we are, what it makes sense for us to choose, and what’s the best life for us.
That’s the discussion we were trying to avoid by phrasing issues regarding life and marriage always in terms of rights. There were of course reasons for the attempt. Issues regarding goods are substantive, and we live in a world that doesn’t know how to deal with substantive matters, so progress is likely to be slow and difficult if we try to put them at the center of the discussion. Even so, the more basic an issue is and the greater the confusion that surrounds it the more necessary it is to deal with it directly.
When issues that are as basic as life and marriage come seriously into question, Catholics and the Church can’t finesse them and avoid disagreeing with other people. After all, the way people discuss them has brought us to where we are today. Our task is to transform discussion by introducing substantive moral realities into it. And that is a task the Church is uniquely well-suited to deal with if she is at all what she claims to be. And if she isn’t, why bother with her?